In praise of librarians, defenders of the written word

Published: Globe and Mail
February 19, 2022
897 words

A note to librarians and public libraries:  Please feel free to republish this column as needed.  If you do so please let me know, or send me a copy, and make sure to credit myself, the Globe and Mail, and my website https://appalbarry.com.

In 1968, when I was 12 years old, my world was almost entirely defined by the science fiction that I read at the Kelowna, B.C., public library. I could name all of the spaceships in Robert Heinlein books, was intimately familiar with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and had read and reread I, Robot and The Martian Chronicles.

Inside the small one-story red-brick building on Ellis Street was a magic world that protected and comforted me. On those shelves I first discovered the seeds that germinated into almost every idea and belief that I have today.

I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember the names or faces of any of these librarians. But I remember the smell of the library, and the dust motes in the sunshine that streamed in from the big windows above the bookshelves. As I write I can feel myself pushing through the big double doors, turning left and walking into the big reading room for adults. I remember the counter where the librarians, with their ink pads and date stamps, waited to check out my books.

My family had moved to Kelowna from Calgary a few years earlier. I was the new kid. I wore glasses. I was picked on and bullied and was chosen last for every team. So I did what so many children like me do: I lived at the library, and inside the books that I brought home from its shelves.

I was a voracious reader. I’d burned through everything in the children’s section and was searching for something new. That’s when I asked one of those un-named librarians for help, and she led me out of the children’s room, and showed me the shelf of Robert Heinlein’s books for adult readers. She quietly explained to me that my library card was equally valid in either the children’s or adult section and that it would allow me to borrow any book in any part of the library. That librarian changed my life.

Twelve-year-old me couldn’t have expressed it in words, but I was overwhelmed by the honour, and the responsibility, of being told that, despite my age, I was allowed to read anything and everything in that library. For the first time in my life, I was being treated like an adult. I knew this was something special.

I remember beginning with Mr. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury and then moving on to other authors with a spaceship sticker on the spine of the book. As I scoured the shelves, I discovered that science fiction was not just about rocket ships and aliens, it was about societies and cultures.

Philip José Farmer took me along on The Fabulous Riverboat, and that twisted version of Tom Sawyer prompted me to discover the original Samuel Clemens. Ursula K. Le Guin upturned my understanding of politics and opened my eyes to characters that were neither male nor female, and surely prepared me for the coming decades of gay liberation, and now trans acceptance.

When I discovered Harlan Ellison’s groundbreaking Dangerous Visions and the sometimes drug-addled authors in that series, I realized that the world was much stranger and more fascinating than what I read in Kelowna’s The Daily Courier. And I learned that some books – such as Gore Vidal’s 1968 Myra Breckinridge – were best kept under cover for fear of outraging my father.

I stepped into the adult side of the library at a time when a seemingly endless stream of books not only explored “deviant” culture but also celebrated it as well. Reading about these dangerous and damaged people showed me that I wasn’t alone. That wasn’t something that I could learn from my family or friends. I had to learn it from books.

Being young means being unfocussed. At the same time I was devouring countercultural science fiction I was also throwing myself into non-fiction, scouring the Dewey Decimal system from the 100s – Witchcraft and Bulfinch’s Mythology – all the way down to the 900s and the Holocaust.

At 12, I already knew the horrors of Nazi Germany, and about the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Auschwitz. It never occurred to me that I might be too young to learn this part of our history.

Unfortunately, this path to enlightenment has been obstructed in McMinn County, Tenn., where the local school board recently removed Art Spiegelman’s landmark graphic memoir, Maus, from its curriculum.

McMinn County is not an isolated case. Across Canada and the United States, there are groups who demand that one book or another be removed from public view, from school curriculums, or from libraries. In the U.S. there have even been threats of criminal charges against public librarians.

Freedom to Read Week, which begins Feb. 20, is the time when our local librarians stand up for the books and authors that some people would ban. It’s also the time when some of us stand up to defend our librarians.

Every book in a library is there because a librarian believes it is worth reading. Unlike the self-appointed censors in Tennessee, my librarians in Kelowna were willing go the extra length to open doors and share the joy of learning with young people. Unlike the school board members in McMinn County, my librarians understood that reading widely and with abandon makes children stronger, and wiser, and sometimes kinder.

Holding onto history

Published: Globe and Mail  (PDF)
December 18, 2021
1258 words

Even though I knew my grandmother for more than 50 years, I had never heard this story of how my family moved from Hagersville, Ont., to the wilds of Western Canada. Some time around 1912, my great-grandfather, Wellington Millard, was afflicted by serious asthma. Because he could no longer live near the smoky Hamilton steel mills, the family decided to leave Ontario for the clean air of Dorintosh, Sask.

While my great-grandparents and six of their children headed west, my grandmother Hazel stayed behind with her mother’s mother, Margaret Dale. Margaret believed the far-fetched stories about blood-thirsty wolves, harsh winters, and the general lawlessness of the West and wanted to be sure that at least one family heir would survive if her fears proved true.

The only reason that I know this story is because my cousin, Crystal Oliver, made a point of recording it in the years before Grandma died.

My mother, Evelyn Rueger, was Hazel’s daughter. In September, aged 94, Mom died of COVID-19. Several weeks later, I drove from Vancouver to Kelowna to meet with my sister Kathy to go through Mom’s house and see what was worth keeping. I knew that most of what was in the house was very old, and of little interest, but it was a job that we had to do.

Like my grandmother, my mom kept everything. As well as records, CDs and VHS tapes, there were decades of Christmas decorations and small appliances from the seventies. We found an electric spin-dryer that predated the modern washing machine that Mom bought with her first pension cheque. Adult clothes, teenagers’ clothes, kids’ and babies’ clothes. And, in an unlocked safe in her bedroom, an urn with my father’s ashes, together with the ashes of three of her previous cats.

Kathy and I didn’t try to make sense of all of this junk. Instead we spent hours looking at family photos. In corners throughout the house we found dozens of photo albums, each packed with pictures of family, both close and distant, each page stirring memories of things that happened decades ago. We looked at pictures of relatives, all looking young and hopeful with their lives ahead of them, many of them now dead. And we looked at similar pictures of ourselves, as children, and teens, and as young adults.

What struck me though was the almost complete absence of anything to do with my father, Ralph. It was not a good relationship, and apparently Mom had quietly purged anything to do with him. Or perhaps there were just never very many pictures of him. All that I know is that at some point he no longer played a large part in my mother’s history, which means that my sister and I can only rely on our own memories to fill that gap.

It was late on Monday when my sister Kathy finally left – saying to me for the first time in her life, “I love you.” Ours is a family that doesn’t say such things for fear of ridicule. That, sadly, is the legacy of my father.

It was only after Kathy left that I found the last box of old documents – letters that I wrote home 40 years ago, more old pictures, wills from several relatives and finally a big, fat Cerlox bound book about my grandmother. Where a Rose Once Bloomed is the family history that I never knew existed.

I did not know that my cousin Crystal was a writer, but in 104 pages she told the entire life story of my grandmother Hazel. In the two years before my grandmother died, Crystal somehow uncovered dozens of anecdotes and stories that I had never heard, and dozens of photos of my grandmother, her parents and their parents as well. I can’t begin to describe what an incredible labour of love this must have been.

Her work and her storytelling ability brought my grandmother back to life. This book made me feel, for the first time, a real connection to her side of our family, and an understanding of the importance of knowing its history. Because I was able to understand my grandmother as a living, breathing person, I was able to understand where I came from, and why I am the person I am today.

And at that moment I came to the realization that my own family has only a part of that knowledge. There are no letters or documents. We have only scattered memory of old stories and family history. We have pictures, but most often no context within which to place them. Even when we recognize the people in old photos, we have no way of knowing the places and times, or why the pictures were taken.

Thanks to Crystal we now have a good history of my mother’s side of the family, but we have literally nothing to tell us our father’s story. We know next to nothing of his childhood and youth, and even less about his first wife. I certainly can’t tell you what motivated him, or what made him so damaged. I can’t tell you why Madge, the nearly mythical first wife, killed herself by walking in front of a train. I am sure that there once were paper records that might have led us to answers, but they all seem to be gone.

And now that my mother is dead, I can see no way to ever collect that history. This makes me very sad.

Surrounding ourselves in those memories was the best thing that we could have done to honour my mother. Each of those tiny images on paper, some colour, some black and white, and some faded almost to nothing, captures a specific moment in time and preserves it in way that is almost lost by our streaming culture. TikTok will never replace Polaroid and Kodak for permanence, and a Facebook post can’t possibly resonate the way a 5-by-7 inch photograph does. Scrolling on the internet will never be as evocative as the tactile experience of turning pages in a big black photo album and pointing to pictures and sharing the stories behind them.

If there is one lesson to be learned from my experience, it is this: Take the time and effort to talk to family members and collect their stories. Interview your parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and write down your own histories. Even if you think you will never want it, this is important. If not for you, then for your children, or your grandchildren.

And collect all of those old photos, and paste them into albums, and write beside each one who is in it, what was happening and when. It will take time, and effort, and will seem old fashioned, but you’re doing this for family members who will find it in 50 years – or a hundred. You cannot imagine how much they will treasure your work, and how much it will enlighten them.
Instead of abandoning your family history to Facebook or Instagram, print it out and save it in a drawer or a shoebox. Computer hard drives crash, and even the biggest social-media companies can disappear. A cupboard full of books and albums in your home can last forever.

Crystal is urging me to take up the challenge and begin building my own family’s history. I don’t know if it’s even possible, but she is making me believe that I may be able to do it.

I’m hoping it’s not too late. I surely understand why it’s so important.

 

Developers face challenges building in Vancouver

Published: Fortune.com (PDF)
May 30, 2020
628 words

Catalyst Project 600 Queens West

Greater Vancouver is one of North America’s toughest housing markets, with expensive real estate and a significant shortage of affordable rental units. Even though local governments acknowledge the problem, the property developers who want to build multiple-unit housing often face pushback from municipal councils and local activists.

The North Shore of Vancouver is home to three suburban municipalities: West Vancouver, with its 10,000-square-foot monster mansions, and the two North Vancouvers: the densified City of North Vancouver, nestled against the waterfront, and the largely single-family suburban District of North Vancouver which surrounds it.

The current North Vancouver District council was elected in 2018, and since then every proposal for multifamily housing, including rental, has been defeated, postponed, or rejected. Local developers are making hard decisions to keep their businesses moving forward at a time when the municipality is blocking every housing development that comes before them.

Read the full article.

Save lives, money and reduce pollution: Why roundabouts are a solution for every city

Published: Globe and Mail
May 7, 2022
920 words

Round-aboutCOVID-19 restrictions are disappearing and France is expecting another one million Canadians to visit the country this year. Many will arrive after a lengthy flight, collect their luggage and clear customs at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, then climb into a rental car. Minutes later, they’ll suddenly find themselves immersed in a stream of French drivers circling around a traffic circle or rond-point. And once they’ve escaped that first traffic circle, they’ll immediately find themselves in a second, and a third, and in all likelihood, yet another.

Welcome to France, and the first of more than 30,000 traffic circles, the multilane roundabouts that challenge visiting drivers to learn new rules, new signs, a new language. They also provide no chance whatsoever to just stop and figure out where you’re going.

It is an item of faith in France that the roundabout was invented in Paris in 1907. The goal of its creator, the architect and urban planner Eugène Hénard, was to better manage the horse-and-carriage traffic throughout Paris. His first roundabout was at Place de l’Étoile in Paris, (since renamed Place Charles-de-Gaulle) where multiple lanes of circulating cars, motorbikes, vans and buses still circle around the Arc de Triomphe.

More specifically, these drivers battle for supremacy over 12 unmarked traffic lanes where cars entering the circle from the right have priority over everyone else. The result is legendary chaos and massive traffic jams.

Regardless of where traffic circles were invented, it was in Britain, not France, where they first became popular, with an explosion of construction in the 1950s and 60s, and a rethinking of how they functioned. It was the British who decided that incoming traffic should yield to those already on the circle. It was the success of this improvement that led to the adoption of the new British design in France.

The first French version of the “English roundabout” was opened in 1976 in Quimper, near Brittany’s Atlantic coastline. The rond-point’s official entry into the French Highway Code happened in 1983, the same year that decentralization moved much of town planning to local governments.

These town and village governments embraced the roundabout with enthusiasm. Since gaining popularity in the 1980s and 90s in France, roundabouts have been adopted in every corner of the country. And civic pride has led to another French tradition: the sculptures placed in the middle of the traffic circles. From the beautiful to the bizarre, these emblems of local pride have not only become important landmarks for lost tourists, but have led to websites, documentaries and Pinterest groups celebrating – or mocking – these roadside artworks.

The modern rules for French roundabouts are simple: Entering traffic must yield to the vehicles already circling. Once you’ve entered, keep to the inside, left-hand lane, with your left-hand-turn signal activated. Once you approach your exit, switch your signal to the right and move to the outside, right-hand lane, then exit. For drivers used to traffic lights and street corners, it can be nerve-racking to figure out which of the three, four, or even five exits you want, before you can change lanes and escape.

All of this happens while you’re watching both rear view mirrors and trying to spot a directional sign that almost never matches what your GPS is telling you. Having a spouse to act as navigator is a big help. (My wife Susan says that depends on which spouse is providing the navigation.)

Roundabouts aren’t just another French oddity – they’re actually a solution to a few problems that are faced by every town and city.

They completely eliminate stop-and-go traffic. Instead of dozens of cars sitting with their engines pumping out exhaust fumes at every red light, traffic moves constantly into and out of intersections. And because they do away with the need for stop lights or advanced left-turn signals, infrastructure maintenance costs are dramatically reduced. For small towns and villages, this saving is a valuable advantage.

Most importantly, though, roundabouts turn out to offer significant advantages in traffic safety. Every car entering a traffic circle has to slow down, so cars, trucks and buses move more slowly than usual. There are no red lights, so there are no drivers who accelerate through the intersection on a yellow. Deadly 90-degree collisions are a rarity in France. And because everyone moves in a counter-clockwise direction, and exits to the right, there’s little chance of cars appearing out of nowhere from your blind spot.

The result, according to a 2018 report by the European Commission, which examined 44 studies where junctions where converted to roundabouts, is a 41-per-cent reduction in traffic accident injuries and a 65 per cent reduction in fatal accidents.

In addition, a World Economic Forum report from December found the United States is saving lives and energy costs by replacing lights with roundabouts. It also notes that France has by far the most roundabouts per capita, about double the number per capita of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

“Here’s a controversial idea that turns conventional thinking about road safety on its head: traffic lights cause accidents, increase pollution and we’d be better of without them,” starts the report.

Still, when your jet-lagged self is suddenly dealing with multiple roundabouts, you’ll appreciate the two big secrets to manoeuvring around them. First, it’s okay to circle two or even three times until you know where you’re going. Second, in the event you take the wrong exit, in all likelihood there’s another roundabout just ahead, so it’s easy to double back to where you got it wrong.

Get to know your banker and do your homework when moving your money out of Canada

Published: Globe and Mail
February 26, 2022
1185 words

Last year, when we moved from Vancouver to France, my wife Susan and I joined the several thousand Canadians who leave the country each year to settle elsewhere in the world. It was a permanent move, and we believed that we had planned carefully for every eventuality.

We were mostly correct, except for one thing: Our bank worked incredibly hard to keep us from moving the money from our house sale to our new country. Our first month in France was spent on international phone calls, talking to bank employees at several levels, sorting out conflicting advice, and having our account frozen a half-dozen times. To those following in our footsteps, we say: Take nothing for granted.

Like many Canadians our relationships with our banks began and ended with websites and bank machines. The only time when we actually sat down with a bank employee would have been every few years for mortgage renewals.

That’s not enough. If you’re planning an international move you’ll need to work on establishing a much closer relationship with your banker. As described by Joe Reid, Vancity credit union’s vice-president for wealth management and impact investing, you should begin early in the planning process by talking to “your trusted advisers … your lawyer, your accountant, any of your professional advisers.” That necessarily includes someone at your bank with experience in handling international money transactions.

Begin this process immediately upon deciding to move internationally, and when you meet with a representative at your local bank, be prepared to question them. Not all bankers have experience in this area, and they may need to pass you on to someone else who knows the ins and outs of large funds transfers, exchange rates and money laundering rules.

Beyond your bank, take time to thoroughly review things such as pensions, registered retirement savings plans and other investments, and especially your will. Inheritance rules in other countries can be very different. You may need two different wills, and an understanding of how your children can avoid inheritance taxes in your new country. You’ll also need to make sure that your family members understand the steps that they’ll need to take when you die.

John Lyng was a customer of Toronto-Dominion Bank for more than two decades when he and his wife left Canada for France. “I thought I had a good relationship with them,” he says, but when he needed to borrow money to secure a lease on an apartment in Paris he found himself turned down even though they were about to sell a home in downtown Toronto. Because Mr. Lyng was new to France, the landlord demanded that he place three years of rent payments in an escrow account or with a guarantor that would guarantee his ability to make rent payments.

His TD banker apparently had no experience in France and refused the loan.  “It’s a very unusual way of doing it,” the banker told Mr. Lyng of the landlord’s request. Mr. Lyng eventually found a loan through a mortgage broker.

We relate Mr. Lyng’s experience with TD only as an example. He’s a member of the popular Canadians in France group on Facebook; other group members, using various Canadian banks, tell similar stories.

“Please be aware that TD customers have several options for transferring funds out of country,” a spokesperson for the bank said in response to an e-mailed query from The Globe and Mail.

Vancity’s Mr. Reid is more specific in advising people leaving Canada: Understand that the rules will be different in other places, both in government and at individual banks. Although technically there’s no limit on the size of a transfer that you can make, individual banks have their own internal rules, and almost all international transfers above $10,000 will be reported to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FinTRAC). As well, you need to understand that even if your local banker is prepared to move funds to you in France (or wherever), the receiving bank may have its own barriers, or may require that you meet local anti-money-laundering rules.

In many cases, it isn’t possible to open a bank account in a foreign country until you arrive. In France, for instance, you invariably will be asked to provide a copy of a current electric bill to prove your residence, and it may take weeks for the new account to be active. In the meantime, don’t cancel your Canadian cellphone number. You can be sure that at least one financial institution will insist that you can’t log in without them sending you a secret code to a Canadian phone number.

Once you’re finally in your new home, and have your new bank account set up, you should still expect surprises from Canada. Mr. Lyng was settled in the suburbs of Paris, and every month arranged to transfer a few thousand dollars from Canada to France for living expenses. Until one day he couldn’t.

“For about one year I was able to do wire transfers, I was able to call the branch manager at the TD branch and they would do it. Until about three years ago when they said ‘we have new security precautions … if you want to do a wire transfer you need to come into the branch in person.’”

When Mr. Lyng explained that spending thousands of dollars to fly to Canada and stay in a hotel made no sense, the bank suggested that he write himself a cheque on his TD account and deposit that in France. According to Mr. Lyng, the cheque bounced when TD claimed there were no funds in his account to honour it.

Since then, Mr. Lyng has done what many other Canadians in Europe do. He relies on a money-transfer company to move funds out of his bank account and into his French one. Companies such as Wise and TorFX can make this easier, and often also offer better exchange rates and lower service charges than the Canadian banks.

Sharon Anne Kean, is senior director of global expansion at Wise, one of the leaders in global money transfer services, and one of the companies frequently recommended on the Canadians in France Facebook group. Ms. Kean’s advice echoes that of Vancity’s Mr. Reid: Start planning early, especially if you need to move large amounts for a home purchase. Like the banks, she says Wise takes security seriously. That means making sure the sender is who they say they are, “but then also doing a check on where you’re sending money to, such as a sales agreement for your new home, or something that verifies that the money is going to a good place.”

Ms. Kean also encourages customers to do their homework. In particular, understand that the “best exchange rate” quoted by your bank may include hidden fees that make it less attractive than what Wise might charge. “That’s a massive revenue stream for most banks. That’s why our rates appear to be more competitive.” Ms. Kean says that both their consumer and corporate customers also appreciate that Wise moves money much faster than the big banks.

 

A move to France helped us discover not just where we felt at home, but how we wanted to live

Published: Globe and Mail 
January 14, 2020
947 words

Our decision to move to France from Canada was an easy one. The food, the culture and even the politics were a better fit for the life that we wanted to live. Along with our cat, Beatrice, we arrived in Bordeaux in mid-October and settled into a nice cottage in the Dordogne, a rural department in southwestern France.

For the first two weeks, we marvelled at the green rolling countryside around us, at the friendly people, and at the array of delicious meats and vegetables that we found at the weekly farmers’ markets and even in large supermarkets. We knew immediately that France was our heaven, but we also knew that the Dordogne was not where we wanted to live, work and build a life.

In the months before our move, we had identified the places that we thought would make a good home, but searching online and actually visiting them are two very different things, so we loaded up our new car and set out on a road trip that would take us more than 3,000 kilometres over two weeks.

Our starting point was Normandy, beginning in the Perche region. Perche is close to both Paris and London, and is imbued with the kind of energy and drive that we we’re used to. We are in France to launch a new music festival, not to retire, so that energy is appealing. Like the Dordogne, Normandy is remarkably beautiful, and has no shortage of the lovely old stone farmhouses that we felt were destined to be our dream home. The area has always been a favourite for British expats, but has also been popular with Parisiens trying to escape crowded city life since COVID began. That proximity is one of the big attractions to living in Normandy. Paris is only a 90-minute trip on the trains. London is further, but whether taking the train, or taking our car via the Channel Tunnel, it’s still an easy weekend trip for a show or to see friends.

We spent a week as guests at La Bellême Bleue Maison d’Hôtes, a restored 17th-century residence, then left to travel east and south to Burgundy. An otherwise dull day on the expensive French tollways was redeemed by a trip to the legendary Chartres cathedral. I expected this would just be a tourist stop, but in many ways it changed how I saw our future lives.

The beauty and majesty of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres are well known, but what affected me most was the age of the building. Canada is a country little more than 150 years old. When I was a schoolchild, our history barely extended past Confederation in 1867.

This cathedral, on the other hand, has been standing for more than a thousand years. I looked up at walls that are 900 years old; at the Sancta Camisia, the tunic said to have been worn by Mary at the birth of Jesus; and at marble sculptures that had been damaged by mobs 200 years ago during the French Revolution.

At Chartres, I was looking at history in ways that had simply never been possible at home, and was beginning to see how this long embrace of the historical past influences everything about France.

After a day and night in Burgundy and Chablis, we made our way down to Provence. We were saddened to see that the fabled southern paradise where my wife Susan spent much of her young adulthood has been overrun with tourists, motorhomes and advertising. We spent a day retracing Susan’s path through hilltop towns like Gordes, finally ending at the fabled ochre mining town of Roussillon.

The surrounding red cliffs are breathtaking, but we chose to turn uphill and follow the winding streets to the very top of the town and L’Église Saint Michel De Roussillon.

Even though religion has never been part of my life, I was swept away by the antiquity of the church, and by the centuries of liturgical artworks displayed, but most profoundly by the stunning statue of the Archangel Saint Michael defeating Satan. Something about this image wrapped itself around my thoughts, and kept me questioning what, if anything, I was doing in my life that could possibly compete with that act – or even with the power of the many artworks depicting it.

It was becoming obvious that in moving to France, my goal was not just to make a living, but to explore the ways that I could build a true legacy.

We spent the evening wandering the winding narrow streets of old Montpellier. Surrounded by crowds of partying students (a quarter of Montpellier’s 277,000 population), I was struck by the feeling that these ancient, cobbled avenues were as alive and vibrant as at any time in the last thousand years. I suddenly understood that ancient and historic don’t need to be dull or quiet.

The next morning, baguettes and charcuterie in hand, we set out on the last leg of our voyage, to the heart of the Occitanie, and the place where we’ll make our new home. The hilltop village of Lauzerte also dates back to the medieval, and like much of France preserves the architecture and heritage of that era while accommodating delivery vans and the new fibre-optic internet that runs to the ancient homes.

As much as we love our modern conveniences – I can’t imagine travelling the winding roads in France without GPS – we’re equally in love with the sense of permanence, and the understanding that you can preserve that history while still living in the current age. As we begin the process of choosing and purchasing our new home in France, we’re consciously seeking that balance.

 

How to Move Abroad and Keep Earning Money

Published: Real Simple Magazine
May 17, 2021
1176 words

For many of us, the pandemic years of 2020-2021 have wildly changed how we approach work and earning. Maybe you’ve gone fully remote and want to stay that way; maybe you’re planning a semi-retirement that involves downsizing just how much work you do. Maybe, like me, you’re making a long-held dream of moving to another country a reality. But if you’re emigrating and planning to earn money in a new country, things can get complicated fast, especially where taxes and work visas are concerned.

My wife and I are preparing to move to France this year; the selling price of our Vancouver home will buy us a lovely rural property in the Dordogne, with money left over. Although yes, we could just live off the proceeds of this sale, we both really want to keep working—me as a writer, my wife as a pianist and teacher.

Here’s how we’re planning to make the move across the globe, downsize our working lives somewhat, and yet still earn money in a foreign country in our semi-retirement.

(full article)

Car-Free Parenting

Published: Asparagus Magazine
April 30, 2021
1046 words

As an on-again-off-again cyclist, I’ve always had a grudging admiration for those people who choose to ride everywhere, all of the time. I know people on Vancouver’s North Shore who ride to and from work — up to 25 kilometres away — every day, and even more that ride for fun and fitness. I can actually see myself commuting with rain gear and a briefcase, but what would happen if I also had a family to transport?

I asked North Vancouver District councillor Mathew Bond. When Bond’s daughter Wilhelmina was born, he didn’t rush out to buy a minivan: he decided to stick with his bright red 2016 Ezee Expedir cargo bike. When he became a father, Bond stepped back from his career as a transportation systems engineer for BC’s Ministry of Transport and became a stay-at-home dad. Because his work as a city councillor tends to be confined to evenings, he’s free during the day to parent.

Wilhelmina is now 6, with a 3-year-old sister named Coral. Bond still loads them onto the back of his bike and rides with them all over the hills and streets of North Vancouver.

A basic cargo bike like the Benno Carry On can be purchased for under US$1,500, but if you add extra carrying capacity and electric-assist, prices can quickly reach five times that number. So before you spend that much money, you really need to make sure it’s the right choice for you. Bond says he bought his cargo bike before they were all the rage, and he chose an electric version to take on the hills in his area.

Ask lots of questions

Bond cautions the curious to test ride these bikes before making a commitment. “My suggestion to people thinking about a cargo bike is to go borrow or rent one. Try it out, see what it’s like, even if it’s just for a day or just for a ride,” he says. “If you haven’t been biking in a long time, or you’re not a person that bikes regularly, try a little trip to the grocery store. I regularly put $300 worth of groceries on the bike. Carry some other things around before you carry your children around on it.”

Try it out, see what it’s like, even if it’s just for a ride.

But Bond’s biggest tip is a simple one: get advice from people already riding. In Vancouver, there are family biking Facebook pages, which include members that are taking their kids on cargo bikes. Social media offers a community that can answer questions about what type of bike will work best for each person’s circumstances. You can ask questions like: What kind of gear do you need, and where can you get it? Who has the best shops and the best services?
“And get a buddy and do a few rides… while they’re out and about on their cargo bike,” says Bond. “See where they go, what they do and how they do it. And ask them to come with you on your first few rides, or when you’re trying something like carrying a large load.”

Kid safety

If you’re planning on loading your kids onto the bike, you have a whole new set of concerns, according to Bond. First off, is helmet safety: “You have to wait till your child’s head fits a helmet.”

Bond started each of his girls riding up front in a seat between his arms. When Bond’s youngest, Coral, started riding, he added a second seat on the back of the bike for Wilhelmina. Eventually both Bond’s girls wound up riding on the rear carrier. If you’ve got two small people on the back of a bike, face them away from one another so they don’t knock helmets.

Learn your bike and your hood
The father of two also has some advice for those in the driver’s seat. “Make sure you’re comfortable. Build up your confidence, and learn your routes,” he says. “Take your kids on a ride in the park, somewhere safe, and then kind of build up from there.” He’s also the former president of the North Shore Mountain Bike Association and believes that cycling with his girls gives them a better understanding of their hometown. While most kids travel in a rear-facing car seat, his girls are riding along with him.

“Kids have a lot less freedom nowadays,” says Bond. “Because they get driven around, they don’t even understand their own neighbourhood. I think developing that kind of sense of place is important.”

As well as helping his daughters to map out their own hometown, the bike trips build confidence and knowledge in his daughters. “The girls know how to get to Lynn Valley, or their friend’s house. Wilhelmina can give me directions: ‘Okay, it’s this way. And let’s go here; let’s go there. Remember when we saw that animal here?’”

Consider storage options

Bond’s final piece of cargo-bike advice is to think carefully about storage. If you live in a condo or apartment, or if you have to navigate a small elevator, what are the best places to park and lock your bike? And if it’s electric, where can you plug in to charge it?

Bond has a parking space with a regular electrical outlet, but had to ask his strata for permission. And then they had to figure out how much to charge him.

After years of riding everywhere on a cargo bike, juggling kids, and home, and council work, Bond is happy with his choices. “When I tell people I use it for almost all my everyday trips, many are stunned, but also excited, and ask ‘Well, how do you . . . ?’”

When I tell people I use it for almost all my everyday trips, many are stunned, but also excited.

Growing up on the back of a cargo bike has one more important benefit for Bond’s daughters. It’s no surprise that Wilhelmina is proud that she can now ride on her own.

“I already knew how to pedal when I was 4,” she says. “I practised and practised… I first started with no pedals. Then I said, ‘I have enough balance Papa.’ Then I tried the pedals.”

And when asked if she had ever fallen: “Yeah. But not too hard.”

Get to Know the Global Scheme that Promotes Green Building

Published: Asparagus Magazine
November 4, 2020
1000 words

The Vancouver Convention Centre is LEED-certified platinum.
The Vancouver Convention Centre is LEED-certified platinum. (Photo by Faruk Ateş via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), is a comprehensive and complex certification program for green building. Developed in the 1990s by the non-profit US Green Building Council (USGBC), it now guides sustainable construction in more than 160 countries. LEED looks at every component of a building — from site selection and construction techniques to appliances and furnishings — with the goal of making buildings safe, environmentally friendly, and energy efficient.

Sustainability Begins at Home

Although LEED is often associated with prestige buildings like Vancouver’s grass-roofed convention centre or Facebook’s water-efficient headquarters in California, LEED also certifies apartment, condo, and single family home construction. Projects earn points for meeting requirements like careful construction-waste disposal and optional features like rainwater management. The number of points earned determines the level of certification awarded: certified, silver, gold, or platinum.

Read the full article.

How long can we support the weight of COVID-19?

Published: The Globe and Mail (PDF)
September 25, 2020
818 words

In August, I received a frantic text message from my sister. She has been our  mother’s primary caregiver for many years, but Mom is 92, settling into dementia, and now had gout. The time had come to finally help her to move out of the family home and into care.
Even though I hardly ever make the drive from Vancouver, where I live, to my home town Kelowna, obviously there was no choice. I cancelled a day’s work and was set to go.
But I didn’t. I still don’t feel entirely safe visiting my mother. I’m pretty sure that I don’t have COVID-19, but that isn’t 100 per cent certain. I’m even less sure that my brother and sister aren’t carriers.

(Read the full column)

Oh, so you think you know us olds?

Published: The Line (PDF)
August 11, 2020
1116 words

A few months ago my wife Susan and I travelled to Vancouver Island to meet a breeder of Great Dane puppies. After decades of rescuing dogs and cats, we had decided that it was time to finally splurge and adopt the dog of our dreams.

We met the breeder, and his Danes, and his puppies, and spoke at length about our experience with dogs, our training as dog handlers, and about the life that we expected to offer our new pet. Even though his prices were higher than some breeders, we were ready to pay it. These were lovely dogs.
We returned home and waited for the email telling us when our puppy was born. And waited. And waited.

After the breeder ignored us for more than a month, we finally put the pieces together: he had decided that we were too old to adopt a dog. Our income, experience, and knowledge meant nothing because we had grey hair – especially since he had said his “best” puppies were all reserved for cool young couples living in Vancouver’s trendy Yaletown neighbourhood.

In an age when almost everyone accepts that you can’t refuse people service on the basis of race, religion, culture, or disability; when right-wing pundits cry in their beer because they’re expected to be respectful of people who are different from them; when #MeToo, and #BLM, and Trans rights are part of the public discourse, there’s still one group that you can mock, insult, and discriminate against: old people.

On one day it’s oh-so-cool tech gurus complaining how they need to dumb-down products because old people can’t understand computers and smart phones. That might include the people who literally invented the Internet and personal computing. They’re now in their sixties and seventies.

On another it’s being ignored at a local restaurant because the servers believe that Old People don’t tip. (We do. Usually 20%. Unless you ignore us.) Incidentally, the American AARP claims old people tip more.

The most absurd are thirty-year-olds who apologize all over themselves for dropping a “fuck” into conversation as if we’re poor innocents that will be shocked into a heart attack if we hear a “curse-word.” That wasn’t true when I was 20, and it’s sure not true now. I grew up with George Carlin’s “7 Words You Can’t Say On Television” so you’re not about to shock me.

Every few years a movie or TV series will appear that tells of an older (invariably widowed) couple who fall in love. It will be a comedy because obviously old people falling in love is just ridiculous. Their children will be very concerned because, well, their parents are OLD people. And the writers won’t dwell on sex because 70 year old people don’t do that, and besides, it would be gross!

Still, I’ll take that bad romance over the inevitable inspirational stories about people 60, 70, or 90-years-old who run a marathon, hike the West Coast trail, or climb Mount Everest. Or get a law degree, or get elected to office, or do important scientific research. Or get married.

“Look Martha! That old person is doing stuff that young people usually do!” Or “Isn’t that sweet, that old guy just kissed that old woman.” Or “Wow, she’s 60, and just started a business!”

Well, big whoop-di-do.

I’ll actually place the blame for these prejudices at the feet of the media, and especially advertising. Whether it’s the sheer inanity of Norwich Union’s 1990 “It’s Patrick He Took Out Life Insurance!” ad series, or the infomercials for Acorn stair lifts and walk-in bath tubs, the truth is that advertisers of all stripes portray older people as infirm, often confused, and not very bright — yet loaded with cash to spend on junk that claims to improve their lifestyle.
Contrast that with the image of older people presented by retirement communities and the government: happy healthy Senior Citizens, with (moderately) active lives, great big smiles, and some kind of unspecified comfortable income that lets them relax, dress well, and take cruises to Alaska. Ah yes, those fabled days of happy retirement!

That picture ignores the hard reality that not every old person is enjoying that happy, healthy lifestyle. The government’s own figures show that about 5% of the senior community lives in poverty, and while those statistics do suggest that the elderly are wealthier than many working-age people and their children, the truth is that many of us continue to work just to make ends meet.
Unlike younger people — who still enjoy health, energy and time to get ahead — many older people are forced into retirement with no real hope of escaping poverty.

Then there’s the matter of healthcare. Being an old patient means that your busy life is not a priority. Everyone in health care assumes that you can be scheduled to whatever time is convenient for the doctors or nurses. Surely you’re not holding down a job anymore? More frightening is the growing sense that there are some medical procedures that you’re just not offered because of age. Then there are the frank statements by doctors who warn that, in the face of a shortage of ICU and ventilators, elderly people will not get access to life-saving interventions.

The picture of the cute, befuddled, but loveable old senior, working the garden of the (fully paid for) family home with no worries beyond the next bingo session at the community hall is nonsense. We have responsibilities to our families; we struggle to pay our bills, just like everybody else.

But it’s this nonsense that provides cover for governments that don’t want to provide pensions that meet the poverty line.

I’ll acknowledge that some old people are doddering old fools. The secret is that they’ve always been doddering fools. I’ve known people that were “old” at age 25, with a boring job, a boring house in the suburbs, and a boring minivan.
Stop and talk to the old people that you do know. Don’t ask about grandchildren or Facebook: ask about how little they get from their pension, or how much of that money goes to medicine and health care. Find out where they’re cutting corners to cover the rent increases every year.

Armed with that information, ask yourself if the pensions and services we’re offering are enough for older people that haven’t had the luck to build up healthy RRSPs or real estate holdings. This matters because sooner or later it’s going to be you that needs them. In the meantime wise up to the truth that the 70 year old you saw in the park could easily be a friend, a business partner, or even a lover — if you could get past your prejudices.